Insanity of Normality, The

by Arno Gruen
3/10 (subjective, confused, unsupported, 100% anecdotal)

Wow, what a disappointment. I now forget how I came across it; it was almost certainly cited or recommended in another book I read. Perhaps I just deceived myself with my expectations. Somehow I supposed it would be an examination of the sickness of reality and society, and an argument for rejecting those things in pursuit of your own personal happiness. I was way off.

The thing is, I don’t always mind being off in my expectations. Many times I’ve been expecting one thing and the book ended up being another. And I can appreciate good writing and interesting arguments outside of my wheelhouse. Sadly, this book is neither of those things.

First off, it’s one of the worst-argued books I’ve ever read. The man proposes something that is somewhat intuitive but also in large part radical. I assume he does it in the name of psychology since he is a professor of that subject. Yet he then proceeds to eschew all remnants of scientific method and even logic from his argument.

I’m not exaggerating; the book is 100% anecdotal. His “argument” is using certain historical and literary figures to “prove” that destructive behavior is the result of people (mostly males) being subjugated by their mothers and thus hating themselves for submitting and then transferring that hatred onto others. The unfortunate part for his argument is that literally every single example he gives can be just as easily explained without his theory. Thus not only does he fail to support his theory, he fails to even show why it’s necessary.

Gruen anticipates this rebuttal in the introduction. Take a moment to read his defense and decide if it’s convincing (I’ll offer my thoughts after the quote):

It may strike the reader that I quite often refer to literature. In my opinion, literary works are closer to human reality than is, for instance, psychological research, which is much too strongly oriented toward the myth of realism and the power structures resulting from it. . .

In order to illustrate my views with empirical cases, I sometimes turn to examples that may seem to represent extremes of human behavior. Perhaps some people will not find these examples significant, because their internal structure will not allow them to see the continuum running through the great diversity of human behavior. Such an attitude, however, simply mirrors the widespread denial of the ties that link us all together. xi-xii

So literary figures are better than psychological research because, um, he thinks so (WTF?!). And anyone who criticizes his use of extreme anecdotes is just one of the self-hating fuckwads he’s talking about anyway.

So I knew I was in trouble pretty quickly, but you know, I still held out hope. Because I thought, Okay, so he’ll use some anecdotes, but surely he’s going to like, support his argument still. Yeah no. The rest of the book is just him making assertions and doing little or nothing to back them up.

Some of them are trivial, like on p.11 when he cavalierly solves the enigma of why we dream in one line, without any explanation and as if it’s been obvious for decades (“. . .the underlying mechanism of dreaming revolves around the retrieval of emotionally significant losses. . .”); or on p.5 when in one fell swoop he uses his theory to explain failure-to-thrive, sudden infant death, and autism (due to the pain of not being accepted by mother); or on p.33 when he tells us how bad Albert Speer is but doesn’t in any way give examples.

Or on p.18:

. . . people who previously have seemed normal suddenly exhibit surprising psychopathic reactions accompanied by blind and destructive rage precisely when they have been wounded in their self-esteem. There have been countless examples of this in war and in cases of business failure.

Yes, so many cases that he will not describe even one.

These comments are passing and beside the point, but at least in that second example they are also insulting, both to parents of the children and to thousands of researchers desperately trying to solve those problems.

Another trivial one that’s also insulting because it’s close to my heart (I’ve read more about it than most thirty-somethings and I care about it passionately) is on p.139 when he sums up JFK’s thoughts on Vietnam, a topic disputed by hundreds of people in dozens of books. He does it in one paragraph and gets it wrong.

Gruen takes JFK’s comment about how he had to wait until after his reelection to draw down in Vietnam and concludes that, “Power meant more to him than human life.” Several other authors have looked at the same comment and concluded pretty much the opposite: that JFK knew that he was the only man who could possibly end the Vietnam War (all the people around him in DC were hawks and fiercely opposed him), but in order to do it he had to first win reelection, since there wasn’t time before the campaign. Thus it was not psychopathic posturing but deeply humanistic strategizing.

I, for one, believe this argument, and the fact that Gruen gets it exactly backwards is not only offensive, it also demonstrates his profoundly specious train of thought in which everything is automatically painted with his self-hatred brush.

Other times Gruen is just nonsensical: “The interior world of these power-obsessed men is filled with both self-hatred and emptiness.(133)” Really? How does that work? “Filled with emptiness?” You mean just empty? If it’s empty, then how does it also have self-hatred?

So yeah. I did not like this book. It is the least scientific work presenting itself as a serious academic argument that I have ever seen. It’s actually an embarrassment, given Gruen’s position at Rutgers. Not only is it poorly supported, with no scientific rigor, or even a basic definition of terms, but it’s also repetitive and amazingly thin on substance.

I admit my bias toward rational argumentation, but I can appreciate inspirational mysticism as well (Alan Wilson Watts and Robert Pirsig are two of my favorite authors). This does neither well (e.g., Gruen spends 200 pages describing ad nauseum this gi-normous societal problem and only gives the barest suggestion of a solution. Seriously?).

Yet I gave it two stars. Why? Because despite himself Gruen could be onto something. He says some good thing about faking feelings (p. 14-15) and has decent insights into the tyrannical mind (especially in the passage concerning Nigerian Wole Soyinka). And overall it’s an important discussion to have. It’s just not one that should be led by him.

Perhaps the most helpful comparison I can give is with another disappointing book, Lewis Hyde’s The Gift. Any book that uses literature as proof of its arguments will forever remind me of this book. And Gruen’s was just as disappointing.

Original Review

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